of the Last God
(Book II of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY
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"There you are!" a female voice called, sounding pleased.
Xaa looked up from his seat at the fire, where he had been discussing the next day's strategy with each of the lords in charge of the ten battalions of warriors under his command. The black-furred, black-eyed mus that addressed him smiled. It was P'jasta, Grnargh's eldest daughter, and she bowed in greeting. Xaa smiled in return, bowing from where he sat, then gestured to the mus gathered around him. "So sorry, but I am engaged at the moment. Is it something urgent?"
"No, my lord. It can wait," P'jasta replied with a smile. "May I sit here beside the fire?"
"Certainly," Xaa replied, gesturing to an empty space beside him on the log he sat on, then turned back to the others and resumed his conversation where he had left off.
It was nearly an hour before Xaa had finished conferring with his battalion leaders. During that time, he had nearly forgotten P'jasta was there - but not quite completely. Her scent was a constant reminder - she had a slight fragrance of flowers about her, and smelled quite pleasant.
Finally, after bowing in goodnight to the others, Xaa turned to P'jasta. "Thank you for waiting so patiently, P'jasta. How may I help you?"
"I've been looking for you, my lord. I went to those pavilions over there, but there was only wounded warriors in them," P'jasta replied, smiling.
"Naturally," Xaa replied, smiling in return. "I have no need of a pavilion-tent, as I see no need to live better than the warriors who serve under me. We captured them from the cats when they fled from our first engagement. Thus, I've left them to the more seriously wounded. It helps keep them cool during the day, warm at night, and keeps insects from bothering them."
"I'm curious, my lord... You've have not taken a single prisoner in this entire campaign, but rather have allowed the cats to flee each time, taking their wounded with them. Why?"
Xaa smiled again. "Because allowing them to drag off their own wounded burdens them even more with caring for them, and hampers their ability to both flee from us, and fight us. If we drove them from the field each time and slaughtered their wounded, the survivors that fled would then move faster than our army, and would eventually escape. As we are caring for our own wounded, we are slowed down by this. We must make sure they are equally slowed. Had I done otherwise, they would have escaped after the first battle and easily fled our lands."
"But isn't that our goal, my lord? To drive them from our lands?"
Xaa shook his head. "Not mine, no. My goal is to grind their army to powder, making it so that it will be years before they can gather this many warriors again - or will want to, knowing the price of war with us. Thus, I continue to attack, and allow them to flee, repeatedly. I will not give them a chance to rest, to regain their focus, and possibly make a stand against us. Each time, they have a clear avenue of retreat. And, they are taking it. After each battle, our supplies grow with what they leave behind on the battlefield - nearly all our army is mounted, now, just from the capture of their birds after each battle. Meanwhile, their supplies continue to shrink."
"Hmmm... My lord, we are quite low on supplies, at that. Couldn't we slow a bit, and perhaps establish a supply train back to the more easterly kingdoms?"
Xaa shook his head. "No. I can't stop. The cats must be kept off-balance. They must not be given a moment to consider the fact that in the end, they outnumber us. They must not be given a moment to plan a counter-attack of their own. They must not be given a moment to gather their courage, and lash back at us. If that happens, they will win," Xaa replied, then sighed as he continued.
"I know our supplies are low - that's why we must plan our battles carefully, trying to maximize the supplies we obtain from the cats. We literally do not have enough warriors or enough arrows, powder and shot to simply crush them in a single battle. Thus, we have to wear them down, keep them off-balance, and keep them retreating. That is also the main reason I left their only other leader alive after that first battle, when I killed R'Nalas. His name is D'Lahst, incidentally - we found that out from some papers we captured after the first battle was over. Had I killed them both, considering we'd already killed their other leader, D'Vring, while he was trying to rally the infantry, their army would simply have broken and ran - and we'd be spending months, perhaps even a year or more hunting them down in small groups instead of the few weeks to a month or two it will take to grind their forces down and drive them out of our lands."
P'jasta bowed her head. "Forgive me for asking all these questions, my lord, but I find I am very curious. I had never been on campaign with Lord Naash, and all this is still very new to me, so sorry."
Xaa smiled again. "It's alright, I understand."
P'jasta hesitated a moment. "My lord... If you don't mind... May I ask a personal question?"
Xaa shrugged. "Go ahead."
"I am quite curious... I've heard that you are to be mated to... A mustelid?"
"They call themselves musties, P'jasta. And yes, in two years, if she still wishes it, I will take her as my mate," Xaa replied, his voice level.
P'jasta blinked, then bowed her head. "Please do not misunderstand, my lord - I am not disapproving, I am merely curious. I apologize if I have offended."
"You have not offended - yet," Xaa replied, and smiled.
P'jasta smiled back, but considered her next words carefully. Xaa was completely unlike her previous liege, Lord Naash. Most obvious was that he was far more reserved, and more cautious. Lord Naash had been somewhat extroverted, almost flamboyant, and quite convinced of his own infallibility. The thought that the cats might somehow be able to conquer Castle Naash had simply never occurred to him - in many ways, it was as though he saw himself as unbeatable. Lord Xaa, on the other paw, seemed quite aware that he was mortal, and had the humility and reserved character of a Zen-master. Lord Naash never spoke of anything personal, and hardly ever engaged in simple conversation with his servants or vassals. Lord Xaa, on the other paw, was quite willing to talk to his servants - but he had his own areas of conversation that he obviously considered sensitive issues, and P'jasta had yet to learn them.
"My lord, if I may ask... What are the musties like?"
Xaa leaned back for a moment, stroking his whiskers. "Well, in appearance, they are quite similar to us, only smaller. They stand about so high," Xaa replied, holding out a paw above the ground. "Still, it's obvious even from looking at one of their adults that they are not children - they are just... Miniature people," Xaa replied, and paused a moment, thinking, before he continued.
"Their heads are different - their ears are furred, their incisors are pointed, rather than chisel-like as ours, and their fangs are somewhat shorter in porportion. Other than that, however, their teeth are very nearly identical to ours, as they are carnivores, as well. Their tails are different... Not prehensile at all - to be honest, they can do little more than wiggle it a bit. Their tails come nowhere near touching the ground - they come down to about their knee - and are covered in fur."
"Like that of a cat, my lord?" P'jasta asked, fascinated.
Xaa shook his head. "No, a cat's tail is about as long as ours, and they can move it about quite a bit. The tail of a mustie is perhaps half as long, and the fur is longer and coarser than that of a cat's tail."
"Ah, I see. Do go on, my lord."
"Well, their eyes are usually brown, ranging from light to dark, though a few have eyes that are nearly black. Their fur is usually brown, but varies somewhat from a light to dark brown - though in all of them, the fur on their chest, abdomen, throat, and beneath the muzzle is always lighter, as with a few of our people. The pads of their paws and feet are dark instead of pink like ours, and the skin on the bare parts of their inner ear is also dark," Xaa finished, then shrugged. "The only other differences I can think of is their smell, really."
"Their smell, my lord?" P'jasta asked, fascinated.
Xaa nodded. "Well, for the majority of the year, they have almost no scent at all."
"No scent at all?"
"Well, unless they're dirty," Xaa replied, and chuckled. P'jasta giggled, and Xaa continued his explanation. "Anyway... They come into heat the same time we do - spring and fall. When they're in heat, which lasts about two weeks, the same as us... Well, then they have a scent," Xaa finished, and chuckled again.
"Really, my lord? What is it like?"
Xaa paused, stroking his whiskers. "It's hard to describe, really... It's not strong, but it's noticeable. The males' scent is unremarkable, to me, but... The scent of their females... It's... Very interesting," Xaa replied. To P'jasta's surprise, the tips of his pink ears were blushing slightly.
P'jasta paused, gazing at the fire for a moment and pretending she hadn't seen the blush. After awhile, she spoke again. "The one you will be mated to, my lord... We've all heard of her, of course - Lady Merle, the Great Inventor. If I may ask... What's she like?"
"Ah. You'd like her, P'jasta. Sweet, kind, and gentle, she's a child of the forests, as are all her people. The forest is really their element. In the forests, you can be looking right at them, blink, and they will be gone, like magical spirits. I've hunted with her - I've seen her do it. All her people are very simple, playful people on the surface... Yet, beneath that surface lies great depths. Merle has the heart of a warrior-mus. All her people do, really. Very brave, very noble... They have no castes - they are all warriors. Before we met them, they hunted bears with nothing but their knives."
"Knives, my lord?" P'jasta asked, amazed.
Xaa nodded. "Knives. More, their culture is as old as ours - older, really. They have the power to laugh in the face of sadness, sing when their hearts are breaking, and dance in the face of death."
P'jasta smiled. "They sound wonderfully enchanting, my lord. Little magical forest-spirits, come to life."
Xaa nodded. "And yet, so much more."
P'jasta nodded, and fell silent, gazing at Xaa. Xaa simply stared at the fire, thinking of Merle.
"You must miss her a great deal, my lord," P'jasta said, her voice soft.
"Yes," Xaa replied, and said nothing more, his gaze lost in the fire.
P'jasta was silent for a long while, simply gazing at Xaa. Finally, she bowed her head. "I... I thank you for talking to me, my lord. Lord Naash hardly ever spoke to us, unless he needed something."
"You're quite welcome," Xaa replied, glancing at P'jasta and smiling briefly.
"I... I also wanted to thank you for accepting my father and our family as your servants, my lord. We... We had nothing, my lord. We had slept in the forest for weeks. We had run out of food two days before, and, of course, being as we are not warriors, none of us knew how to hunt. Yet... Yet you gave us the last of your own food, and accepted us formally. That was... That was so wonderful, my lord. I thought my heart would burst with happiness."
Xaa smiled again. "You are, again, quite welcome," he replied.
P'jasta rose, then bowed. "I have taken enough of your time, my lord. I will let you rest now - and I thank you again. For everything."
Xaa bowed in return from where he sat, smiling, and P'jasta stepped back, then turned and walked away. P'jasta walked beyond the firelight, then paused, and glanced back. Xaa simply sat there quietly, his gaze lost in the fire again.
For a moment, P'jasta thought how
wonderful and sad it must be to love someone who was like a
beautiful, ethereal spirit of the forest - for certainly it was
obvious the strange little elfin being Lord Xaa had described had
stolen his heart, and yet his love for her gave him no comfort
now, when the darkness of night was upon him. P'jasta sighed -
the burdens of her lord were her burdens, yet she knew not how to
ease them. She could only hope that the story of her lord's love
for this strange little creature would turn out alright.
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